5.5 Cultural Studies: Birmingham and Toronto

5.5 Cultural Studies: Birmingham and Toronto


In our previous section we talked about the
interesting but somewhat outdated Frankfurter School. Let’s discuss two other, more modern, schools.
The Birmingham and the Toronto School. Like the Frankfurter School the Birmingham
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, championed by Stuart Hall, was also very much interested in power
structures, communicated through pop culture. A central theme in the Birmingham School was
the theory of Hegemony. The core idea of which is again that pop culture
communicates the dominant cultural framework. This framework, per definition, even without
actually being artificially designed that way, communicates that dominant power structure,
who is in power, what the rules are, who to obey, what is considered ‘good behavior’ et cetera. This cultural hegemony appears implicitly in all
carriers of pop culture: literature, songs, movies, game shows, soap
opera’s, bill boards, commercials, newspapers, et cetera. So even without knowing it, we are constantly being programmed with rules
and truths that benefit the status quo. In later years the Theory of Hegemony lost it’s
importance. The important scientist Fiske for instance takes
a very different approach. He sees the worth of pop culture in it’s universal
appeal. The fact that many people respond to a certain
music album it is an indicator of it’s cultural quality. It is in other words in synch with
the dominant social reality. You can see that Fiske actually sees popularity
as a indicator of quality. Quite a difference from the Frankfurter School
that regarded pop culture as an oppressive tool designed to keep us ignorant and passive. According to Fiske: If a movie appeals to
millions of people it is culturally closer to than an elitist theater
performance that only a handful of people visit and
appreciate. Note that this way of looking at quality actually
gives a lot more power to the audience. It assumes that if many people like something,
it has cultural worth. A very important alternative to the Birmingham
School is the Toronto School. This approach focuses more on the channels of
communication, the media themselves. His famous quote is “the medium is the
message”. His famous quote is “the medium is the
message”. He meant that culture is influenced more by the
characteristics of a medium than by the actual content. The cinema for instance is all about the
experience of going to a theater. Perhaps you go on a date with someone, buy
popcorn, wait for the movie to start, talk about the previews, sit in the dark together
et cetera. All of this is made possible by the particularities
of the channel. You have probably experienced something like
this yourself. Do you still remember the specific movie it was
you saw? You could just as well see the movie at home, it saves a lot of money and you can pause it if
you need to go to the toilet. The movie experience in the cinema and at
home are of course completely different, not because the content is different but the
channel you use is different. McLuhan explains that media all have their own
characteristics and these characteristics imbed themselves in
the experience. If I tell you a joke in your face it will be different
than if I send it by text message. That’s why, according to McLuhan, we should study the way specific channels,
change and form our culture. New media for instance will by their very nature
always disrupt the status quo quo because they allow for new ways of
communicating, and new ways of shaping reality. Technologies, according to McLuhan in his
groundbreaking book The Gutenberg Galaxy, are not only things we use to make life easier,
they actually re-invent us as people. For instance the printing revolution, made
possible by the innovation of the printing press, completely changed they way people interacted, how they formed ideas and shared cultural
values and truths. With every large media revolution, like the
printing revolution, the rise of the newspaper and television, mankind was culturally re-
invented. New media allowed new ways for people to talk
to each other, to connect. New ways to pass the time. New ways to give
meaning to the world around us and explore the difficult question of who we are. McLuhan predicted in 1962 that the rise of
television and computers usher in an electronic age that
will again force society to restructure itself to deal with issues
like increased feelings of uncertainty, social fragmentation and globalization. I would like to discuss these topics with you, in
our next chapter.

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